Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Kidnap phone scams on the rise

Spike in kidnap phone scams in Singapore
241 scam attempts in first half of this year, with 22 victims cheated of a total $98,100
By Olivia Ho, The Straits Times, 12 Oct 2015

The customer wanted to withdraw $10,000 from her bank account, but something was wrong.

When staff at POSB's Woodlands branch tried to make small talk with her, she was silent. Instead, she wrote on a piece of paper: "My son has been kidnapped."

Branch service manager Kina Neo, 50, said of the encounter last November: "She looked like she wanted to cry."

Ms Neo took the woman, a fruit seller in her 40s, to a private room and kept communicating with her through writing. The woman revealed that she had answered a phone call and heard what she thought was her teenage son's voice begging for help.

This was followed by another caller demanding $10,000 if she wanted to see her son again. She was ordered not to hang up so the caller could listen in on whatever she was doing.

On learning that the customer's son was doing his national service, Ms Neo managed to get in touch with his officer-in-charge and ascertain he was still in camp.

The phone call had been nothing more than a hoax.

Such kidnap scams tripled in 2014 from the year before. The police received 422 reports of such scam attempts last year, 40 of which were successful - compared with 13 out of the 178 reported in 2013.

These scams usually involve the victims getting a call from someone pretending to be their relative in distress. A "kidnapper" then comes on the line and demands that they remit a ransom, usually to an overseas bank account.

In the first half of this year, 241 scam attempts had already been reported, up from 216 in the same period last year.

Of these, 22 victims were cheated of a total of $98,100, close to the $113,700 lost across the 40 cases last year. The highest sum handed over in a single incident last year was $45,000 in January.

Ms Neo said she has stopped three such scams from happening to bank customers.

"When staff spot unusual customer transactions, any red flags, they will highlight it to me or my assistant," she said.

A police spokesman, in a warning, advised the public against transferring money to such callers, and to contact their loved ones at once to confirm their safety.

They should report these cases to the police immediately, he added.

He said: "To avoid becoming a victim of this scam, remain calm and ask the caller to identify the kidnapped person."

Technical officer Siok Siew Hua, 62, did just that when he received such a call from someone claiming to be his 21-year-old son last June.

Mr Siok recalled: "He was crying, 'Papa, come save me, they have caught me!' I almost believed him, because my son was doing military training in Thailand at the time, but I kept calm and asked what his name was. The guy just hung up.

"It sounded like my son because he was half-crying, so I couldn't really hear his voice."

Ms Neo, who has been the subject of such calls herself, said: "Normally, the customers are really afraid and, in their panic, they think it has to be their children crying for help."

In the case of housewife Tan Ah Moi, 72, a scam attempt in June this year backfired because her distress was too great.

Hearing what she thought was her granddaughter, 23, screaming for help over the phone, she panicked and accidentally hung up before the "kidnapper" could demand a ransom.

Unable to call back on the same number, she and her husband, 81, ran out of the house in their pyjamas and hailed a cab to rush to their daughter's place. When they arrived, they were confused to discover their granddaughter safely ensconced in her room.

Madam Tan said in Mandarin: "If I hadn't hung up, they could have lured me to goodness knows where, or taken any sum of money from me. All I could think of was saving my granddaughter."

"It sounded like my son because he was half-crying, so I couldn't really hear his voice." The phone call had been...
Posted by National Crime Prevention Council (Singapore) on Monday, October 12, 2015

Kidnap Scam: ‘If you hang up, your son's head will roll’
Mystery caller asks woman for $15,000 for her 'kidnapped' son
By Foo Jie Ying and Nabilah Awang, The New Paper, 2 Nov 2015

For 1½ hours, out of fear, she stayed on the phone with a stranger.

"If you hang up, your son's head will roll," the caller, whom she believed to be a kidnapper, told her in Mandarin.

Scared out of her wits, Madam Lee (not her real name), said: "I started crying the moment I heard that my son was held hostage.

"I was ready to give them money in exchange for his safety."

The mother of three, who is in her 60s, almost fell prey to a kidnapping scam on Oct 21.

Speaking to The New Paper a week after the incident, she said the harrowing experience began with a call from an unknown number.

It was about 9.45am and Madam Lee, who is in the service line, was in the vicinity of her Raffles Place office with three colleagues.

She said in Mandarin: "I don't usually take calls from unknown numbers. But I did that day because I thought it might have been my second son, who is overseas."

A seemingly familiar voice came on. It sounded like her elder son, who is 36.

"Ma, someone is beating me up! Help me!" the voice cried, before another male voice hastily took over.

"Your son caught us doing something illegal and now we need $15,000 to run away," said the man, who, Madam Lee thought, was the kidnapper.

She was asked to transfer $15,000 for the release of her son. For 1 1/2 hours, out of fear, she stayed on the phone...
Posted by The New Paper on Sunday, November 1, 2015


He also threatened to hurt her son if she hung up on him.

Tears sprang to Madam Lee's eyes as she tried to make sense of the situation.

"My mind went blank and I was so shocked," said Madam Lee, who also has a daughter.

"The kidnapper told me to hurry up, or my son's life would be in danger. I remember thinking to myself that if money could solve the problem, I wouldn't mind giving it."

Still on the phone, Madam Lee walked to the nearest ATM at Raffles Place MRT station and started pacing around the area.

She realised that her card's credit limit allowed her to transfer only $2,000 to the "kidnapper's" bank account - an amount he readily accepted despite the huge dip.

Just before she inserted her card into the ATM, she was stopped by a group of Public Transport Security Command (TransCom) officers.

It turned out that one of Madam Lee's colleagues, who realised what was happening, approached Mr Jufri Arshad, a senior station manager at Raffles Place MRT station, for help.

Mr Jufri, 49, and Madam Lee's colleague then rushed to the row of ATMs, where they found Madam Lee.

They pretended to do maintenance checks while assessing the situation.

"Even though I was alarmed, I knew I had to stay composed. I also didn't want to approach her immediately because I was afraid the kidnappers might be watching," Mr Jufri said.

He immediately informed SMRT's Command Control Centre and sought permission to call the police.

"The safety of the passengers is my No. 1 priority and that is why I knew I had to act quickly," Mr Jufri said.

Five minutes later, he took four TransCom officers to Madam Lee.

Special Constable Sergeant (SC Sgt) Jeremiah Toh, 21, the leader of the team, was forced to think on his feet as kidnapping cases rarely feature in TransCom officers' list of duties.

Noting that Madam Lee was on the phone, he whipped out a notebook from his pocket and began communicating with her by writing.

Initially, Madam Lee was a little uncooperative, he said, adding that it frustrated him a little.

"She actually didn't want the police to interfere in her matter. She started walking around back and forth (the area with the ATMs).

"At one point, she insisted she wanted to transfer the money, but I told her not to transfer anything and to wait a while," he said.

As SC Sgt Toh dug out more information from Madam Lee, alarm bells rang: Why was the "kidnapper" willing to accept $2,000 in place of the initial ransom of $15,000?

The fact that the "kidnapper" seemed so patient also seemed suspicious.


Meanwhile, not knowing what to do, Madam Lee started wandering around the MRT station. Still on the phone with the "kidnapper", she went onto the street level, hoping to stall for time and figure out a solution.

The TransCom officers trailed her, making sure she did not make the bank transfer.

What convinced Madam Lee to work with SC Sgt Toh was when he wrote: "If you cooperate with me, your son will be safe."

After getting her son's mobile number from her, SC Sgt Toh liaised with the Central Police Division, where an investigating officer called the number.

"(The investigating officer) called back, saying that Madam Lee's son is perfectly safe, and instructed me to tell her to hang up immediately and not to pick up any more of their calls," he said.

It was only after Madam Lee rang her son that she believed it was all a scam. By then, it was already close to 11.30am.

More than a week has passed since the scam, but the incident still plays in her mind every night.

She said: "Come to think of it, there were some tell-tale signs that showed it was a scam. I remember speaking in dialect. Usually, my son would reply in dialect, but that day, the person on the phone didn't."

She was unaware of the pivotal role that SMRT's Mr Jufri had played behind the scenes in alerting the police until the day she spoke to TNP, when she met him and thanked him.

Mr Jufri, a father of three, simply smiled and said: "It's okay, don't worry."

He said he had stepped in to help because he understood Madam Lee's distress.

"I cannot imagine being in her shoes at that time. I'm a parent myself and I know I would do anything it takes to make sure my children are safe," he said.

How kidnapping scams work

The scammer usually claims that the victim's child has been kidnapped and will demand for money to be remitted or transferred as ransom, said a police spokesman.

"They make their ruse believable by including cries for help in the background," said the spokesman.

"During the conversation, the scammers will not allow their victims to speak with their loved ones who had supposedly been kidnapped.


"In recent cases, scammers had mostly requested for the victims to transfer the money to a local bank account through the ATM."

Retired police office Lionel De Souza, who has 27 years of experience, said that the first thing victims should do is to stay engaged on the phone and try to signal for help to someone in the vicinity.

For parents with young children, dry runs can be conducted regularly to ensure everyone is aware of the steps to take when facing such situations.

They can also establish a code word that can be said in times of danger, so that they will know if the voice on the other end of the phone is their child.

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